Valentine’s Day is in less than a week, and I’m sure we’ve all seen the advertisements. The jewelry, the chocolates, the movies. There are a few movies being released especially on Valentine’s Day, and this year one of those movies is Safe Haven, which features a young woman with a “dark past” who seeks refuge in the arms of a single father. She’s beautiful but timid, he’s kind but cautious. Their love will be hesitant and interrupted, but it will bloom more beautiful for the adversity they’ve suffered. Or so we’ve been taught to believe.
The “dark past” is a theme in most romance movies. It doesn’t really matter who has it, the woman or the man, the point is that the power of love conquers all! It heals past wounds! It makes you whole again! It gives you a reason to go on and find a new life! But what happens if your life is just fine? If you are whole? If your wounds are minor, at best, and there’s really no healing to happen? Well, if you’re me (and I suspect many other young women out there) you end up: 1. Exaggerating your past to create a “dark past” style mythos around yourself; or 2. Dating men with a “dark past” who are actually genuinely damaged people who need professional help to get past their issues. If you’re really lucky (or also me), you’ve done both.
I’m not proud of this, and I’m not advocating it for other young women. In fact, I’m writing this partially to help other young women realize this is not the way to happiness. Relationships based around one party “fixing” another are doomed. No one can fix another person. You can be the impetus that inspires someone to confront their issues, but you personally cannot do it for them. So why is it so often portrayed in movies and television shows? You can spend all day on TV Tropes looking at articles related to people with “dark pasts,” whether male or female. There shouldn’t be anything inherently attractive about someone whose heart is too broken to really love someone else. Except we’ve made them so attractive. Why?
My first answer came when I took a screenwriting class in college. When writing screenplays, you start with a problem and your story arc is literally a straight line moving upwards to the solution. So, it’s hard to write a love story that keeps your two protagonists apart for the the length of the movie when both of them are basically smart, well-adjusted people with stable family situations. As someone who was basically smart, well-adjusted and had a stable family situation, I never saw myself represented in romantic movies. The girl who got the attention was always dark; abused, depressed, abandoned, something awful. To my as-yet-unformed mind the message was clear: boys only like you if you really NEED them. If your sanity depends on their love. If you’re a frail, broken bird, and they’re the ones who can heal you. So I told stories about how I was teased in middle school, which were true, but the effects of which I exaggerated. I talked about the illness that nearly killed me as a child, leaving out the part where I didn’t remember a minute of that ordeal. I pointed out the faint scars left on my face from that illness, and said they made me feel ugly and damaged. I never mentioned that I literally had no memory of my own face without those scars, and they were as much a part of me as my freckles. The normal hormonal throes of adolescence helped, too. I had dark days just like every other teenager in existence, I just managed to convince myself that those dark days were more “real” than the times I was happy. And I sought out boys who were similarly dark (or “dark”), believing we could save each other. That anyone perfect would reject me for my “flaws” (or lack thereof) but we could make each other perfect.
Predictably, the results were awful. And as I grew and aged, I learned to accept that my life was happy and there was nothing wrong with that. That I was lucky to have it, and any man with an ounce of sanity would be thrilled to realize that I had a good relationship with both of my parents and that my worst secrets were a tendency towards bluntness and a thick streak of introversion that makes me seek out “alone time” even from those I love. But no one would write movies about women like me, because what drama is there to be wrung from a woman who says “Hey, I’m gonna need some “˜me time’ so if you absolutely need me I’ll be over there but otherwise have a good evening.” Or “I talked to my mom today. She said to say hi, and that the dogs are doing great and looking forward to our next visit.” It wouldn’t fill even a 22-minute television screenplay, never mind a movie.
There are people out there with genuine issues to work through, and I feel sorry every time I see someone’s story co-opted for the sake of entertainment with no nuance or subtlety. I feel worse when I look back on my own immature attempts to create a “past” because I thought no one would care about me otherwise. I wish there were more of a place in media for women who are calm, whose families love them, who have never been deeply hurt, and who are still vibrant and interesting. They exist, and finding them is always wonderful, but the overall message from the media is still that the only thing more beautiful than a beautiful woman is a beautiful woman who is already somehow broken, and that’s a message I’d like to see stamped out.